The Dangers of Douching and Why Black Women Should Care

by Tyiesha Johnson, MPH and Francesca Branch, MSPH

It’s Saturday morning, and as you finish running your weekly errands, you go down and cross off tasks from your to-do list. Whole Foods, check, hair salon, check, bank, check, mall, check. You finally get to your last stop, Target, to pick up a few hair, makeup, and body essentials. As you move to the aisle for feminine body products, into your cart goes deodorant, tampons, lotion, body spray, feminine wash and other products you wouldn’t think twice about using. Little do you know, these products pose a threat to your health because they contain chemicals called phthalates.

Phthalates (pronounced “thal-lates”) are a class of harmful chemicals that are commonly present in many products used by women on a daily basis, such as perfumes, lotions, deodorants, and nail polishes. One common type of phthalate known, diethylphthalate (DEP), is used in fragrance in personal care products and may also be found in feminine hygiene products such as tampons, sanitary napkins, and feminine washes also known as vaginal douches. Findings from previous investigations show that douching is practiced more frequently among African American women. In our new research study, we found that vaginal douching products may increase women’s exposures to phthalates and black women may be at higher risk of due to their more frequent use of these products.

Approximately 1 in 5 women use vaginal douching products and about 40% of black women reported using vaginal douches. The use of vaginal douches and other scented feminine hygiene products can place phthalates in direct contact with the vagina, which can absorb toxicants at a higher rate than skin. In addition to the potential for harmful chemical exposure, douching can also lead to changes in the vagina’s natural environment, which can make it vulnerable to unwanted infections like pelvic inflammatory disease. Despite the recommendation from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and from the Centers for Disease Control that women should not douche because of their harmful effects, many women still engage in this practice for reasons that include cleansing after menses or sexual activity or in response to odor, according to a 2008 article published in the Annals of Epidemiology.

Now that we’ve identified the issue of black women being more exposed to phthalates and douching more frequently than other groups of women, it’s best we try to understand how this issue has manifested. Although more research is needed to better understand the factors that perpetuate these environmental health disparities, we can look to historical events and ideas of oppression and odor discrimination against African Americans to shed light on the role of the European standard of beauty on African American women.

In an article entitled “An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African American Beauty Culture and Advertising,” author Michelle Ferranti discusses discrimination against Blacks in the past regarding how others perceived the way in which they smelled. Additionally, she discusses how black beauty has been shaped over time through racist advertising and commercial marketing to perpetuate false ideas about black people, specifically black women, tapping into their insecurities regarding beauty and personal odors and thus influencing their consumer choices. Examples of these include blacks being referred to as gorillas or popularizing the notion that “black people stink.” Creating these stigmas was one of the strategic methods used to marginalize black people in an already predominately white society. Furthermore by tapping into the insecurities of African Americans post slavery, at a time when they were ostracized by the majority and treated as less than equal, products such as vaginal douches seemed appealing. Ferranti notes that, “For many recently emancipated African Americans, a clean and odor-free body signified personal progress and enterprise, and the hope for racial assimilation.”

The use of advertisements in promoting douching became very important in marketing toward African American women. After World War II, companies began marketing douching products to black women to use for cosmetic purposes. This subtle brainwashing tool of bombarding black women with images of women douching who looked like them, increased the use and sales of douching products significantly in the black community and created a cultural norm. To this day, we still find that black women use these products more frequently than any other group of women. This unhealthy habit is institutionalized through our culture and has been maintained and passed down through generations.

So next time you’re in that feminine body products aisle, we hope you seriously think about what you’re putting in your basket. Keep in mind that everything that smells good, may not actually be good for you. Please think twice about the chemicals you’re putting in your body and how they are impacting your health. Don’t forget to check out our article on phthalates and vaginal douching and spread the word about the dangers associated with it.

Photo: Shutterstock

Tyiesha Johnson is a research assistant at the George Washington University, where she investigates the impact of environmental toxins on human health, more specifically women’s reproductive health. She has her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Environmental and Occupational Health from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA.

Fran Branch is a doctoral candidate and research assistant at the George Washington University where she explores the association between environmental chemicals and human health outcomes. She has a Master of Science degree in Public Health (MSPH) in Environmental Health Sciences from Tulane University, NO.

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